System integration of mobile controls and monitoring: Questions and answers

Cover Story: Reliable wireless capabilities are facilitating mobile monitoring and control. Experts explain why and how mobility helps automation and control applications.

By Mark T. Hoske April 11, 2017

Mobile monitoring and control capabilities are being integrated with automation, controls, and other plant-floor systems. Below, a panel of experts answered questions about wireless automation and control. The experts are:

  • Daniel E. Capano CWSP, CWNA, GROL, Diversified Technical Services Inc. of Stamford, Conn. Capano also is a Control Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member.
  • Robert Jardel, controls engineer, and John G. Neil, assembly and service foreman, Garvey Corp. 
  • Travis Cox, co-director of sales engineering, Inductive Automation
  • Barbora Plaminkova, marketing director, mySCADA Technologies, whose myMobile software won a 2017 Engineers’ Choice Award in the Software – Mobile apps for controls, automation, instrumentation category.

Control Engineering (CE): Please give at least one application example where mobile technologies (mobile industrial computers, tablets, smart phones) are used or being considered for monitoring or control.

Capano: The Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority (SWPCA) of Stamford, Conn., is considering the use of tablets to facilitate mobile monitoring of plant operations. This obviously will happen wirelessly and after the wireless infrastructure expansion, following the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) upgrade.

Jardel: Garvey is using mobile technology throughout its facility. I was brought on almost a year ago to help bring Garvey’s controls work in-house. In addition to the need to support Garvey customers, other things needed attention.

Historically, assemblers and technicians would manually collect data while testing product performance. This information then would change hands and travel through multiple departments, sometimes this information is time-sensitive, further complicating the process. Garvey employees would have to walk back and forth to the main panel to adjust variable frequency drive (VFD) speeds and would then have to return to the machine to monitor the product. If the speed didn’t work they would have to return to the panel. The solution was simple, reprogram the programmable logic controller (PLC) and give employees an Apple iPad.

Now, employees can change speeds on the "fly" while standing at the machine; what was traditionally a two-person job can now be performed by one technician in one-tenth the time. In addition to ease of use; when they finally dial in the correct speeds, with a click of a button that information is made available on the Garvey network to everyone, including engineering, proposals, and sales.

Neil: With such a repeatable and user friendly system in place at Garvey, the documentation needed to improve the accuracy of machine designs is now readily available.

Cox: The best example of mobility is an application that provides a service to golf courses, sports stadiums, resorts, public parks, and more, with the ability to monitor and control their irrigation systems and pump stations. In this case the data is all remote, and no one is close to the PLCs. The PLCs communicate over cellular to a centralized system and the only access operators have is a mobile phone. With this application, they can monitor the current status, alarms, trend historical data, and more. We see a lot of customers use mobility to monitor remote devices and provide a service. Another example has to do with troubleshooting problems on a factory floor. We have seen customers use their smartphones to not only get important machine information but can communicate with others and share video footage of the process.

Usually these applications deal with monitoring data and not so much control (since security is a big concern).

Plaminkova: Mobility software can be used in many ways. Visualization of hydropower plant (photo) gives the possibility to control production from anywhere, and that saves money. (No one has to be there personally. If anything happens, the system automatically sends an SMS/email to a mobile tablet and the operator, manager, or owner immediately knows that something is going on). It also saves time because no regular controls are needed. The owner of this hydropower plant used to drive to the location to check if the plant was working correctly.

CE: What are (or were) the achieved or expected benefits?

Capano: It is believed that the use of mobile devices will result in savings from the elimination of lost time by at least half. The ability to find operations and maintenance (O&M) data on an internal server from the field, and then locate a part in inventory would be one of the ways this would be accomplished. This is also expected to give the operators the ability to monitor and eventually control plant processes in real time, allowing faster response to anomalies or emergencies from practically anywhere. Security and access control will be accessible from the mobile device.

Jardel: John Neil worked on this mobility project with me day in and day out; as you might imagine, presenting it to upper management and sales didn’t go over well at first. Why? The obvious reasons: "Don’t fix something that isn’t broken," "We have always done it this way," and "It’s going to cost how much!?" We finally got everything approved, and within minutes Garvey technicians were on board, within days the rest of the engineering staff had subscribed, and within weeks, the sales team was trying to offer this to customers as part of a standard package.

Neil: In the long run we expect the use of the mobility system to increase the efficiency of our customers daily operation as well as the repeatability and accuracy of packaging machine lines.

Cox: The biggest benefit is the BYOD (bring your own device) mentality. Everyone has a smartphone and wants access to the data. It also allows people who need the data to view it quickly.

Plaminkova: As mentioned, the most important benefits are the time and cost savings, and also the possibility to control the production from anywhere, which brings a valuable advantage. Example: When a solar plant is overloaded, it automatically shuts down. If it happens, there was no production of the plant until someone went to the location and checked it. That delay could never happen with mobility software because the system notified that there is an accident.

CE: Should these assets be integrated into existing automation and controls or communicate data or information in other ways and why?

Capano: These devices would be integrated into the existing system using a new or existing wireless infrastructure based on open standards, inside the fence line. Outside the fence line the only option would be cellular, though any Wi-Fi connection would allow VPN connection back to the plant.

Jardel: Absolutely, as mentioned, mobile capabilities make any process that involves an operator seamless. The panel isn’t always located in the most user-friendly area, making this technology extremely useful. Return on investment (ROI) for something like this is weeks to months, the end user is essentially looking at the cost of a web-enabled HMI and some engineering time to set it up. (That estimate is based on use of more up-to-date control systems; legacy systems would take a bit more work.)

Cox: For security reasons these assets should communicate information using middleware (like MQTT, which is message queueing telemetry transport). They shouldn’t talk directly to the automation or controls systems, especially if we want to get this data from anywhere (not just on the plant floor).

Plaminkova: This application is already integrated into the industrial and home automation industries. There is the possibility to monitor and control the production, see the trends, and adapt with them to be ahead competitors.

CE: To what degree should mobile monitoring and control be integrated with other systems and how?

Capano: Mobile monitoring and control should be implemented in addition to a conventional control system, not as a replacement. Wireless is the obvious medium for integration.

Jardel: Security is always a concern; however, remote monitoring at these levels pose little risk to the end-user. Security clearance levels can be implemented, restricting certain information to management, most HMI software offer radio buttons that with a click can configure these settings. Additionally, access can be restricted to a local network, further reducing security risks.

Maintenance also will benefit from mobile monitoring; operators can have access in real time to their equipment. Any business owner knows that when a machine is running it’s making money; if the machine is not running it’s costing money. Imagine if an operator would get an alert to the mobile phone saying sensor-100 has lost communication, then walks over to find it had been hit by a fork-lift, and within minutes the sensor is swapped out, and the machinery is back up and running.

Cox: Data collection and monitoring is a perfect application for mobility. The risk is lower since the information is read-only. There is huge benefit from being able to see your data. However, control brings up a lot of security concerns especially when leveraging the cloud. Companies also have to provide the infrastructure to enable mobility.

Plaminkova: Mobile and tablet usage is very common in everyday life. We believe that controlling power plants and production lines or anything else could be part of everyday life for anyone who wants to spend less time in the office or factories but still needs a general overview of the technology.

CE: What other advice would you offer subscribers about system integration of mobile monitoring and controls?

Capano: Do your homework. Use only open standard devices and systems; avoid proprietary systems unless you are going to install a complete vendor solution throughout. Otherwise, stick to open standards to allow for future expansion and greatly reduced costs. Proprietary = excessive cost/complexity.

Jardel: I would say to any controls engineer thinking about implementing this technology to dive in with both feet. We are part of a generation that wants information immediately; with that mentality in our next wave of managers, we need to be ready to meet their needs. This technology is going to be the rule and not the exception in the years to come. The sales team spends time learning about the added benefits to remote monitoring and control, sales personnel are on the front line, and if they can speak intelligently on the subject, the end user may be more inclined to use mobility technologies in the plant. Most customers aren’t even aware that this technology exists let-alone that they could potentially put it to use in their facilities.

Cox: The best advice I can give is "think security first." Make sure you are not exposing yourself to risk in attempting to get data to more people. Use middleware such as MQTT that provides transport layer security (TLS) and access control lists. Make sure the data is being sent up and is read-only in most cases. You don’t want devices talking to the plant floor directly.

Plaminkova: Do not be afraid to use this modern way of monitoring and controlling. The technology (applications and so on) is ready for that, so take advantage of it, and be one of the pioneers.

Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Key concepts

  • Mobile monitoring and controls can be integrated with others systems.
  • Such mobile integration requires attention to security.
  • Benefits include greater access to data so it can be used as information. 

Consider this

How could mobile control, monitoring, or data entry help your processes? 

ONLINE extra

Cover story: Integrating wireless with wastewater (Control Engineering, February 2015) 

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.